TIFF in Review Part Two: Small Wonders

Last week I dove into the six fall movies I saw at the Toronto film festival, including Oscar hopefuls 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and August: Osage County. This week will be devoted to the smaller films—foreign and indie—that came to TIFF seeking distribution( with the notable exception of Asgar Farhadi’s The Past, which had already secured a release for December). Fortunately, as they’re isn’t a dud among them, each one has  been picked up by a US distributor, and will be released sometime on the 2014 film calendar.


Can a Song Save Your Life 

John Carney’s follow-up to his micro-budget smash hit Once, was at the center of the largest bidding war at this year’s TIFF, with various distributors negotiating deep into the night immediately following it’s world premiere. The Weinstein company won that battle, and they undoubtedly have a feel-good musical hit on their hands, with a tentative release date set for next summer. It’s a smart move on their part, ideal counter-programming against the onslaught of sequels and blockbusters – and yet I wish I could say I liked the movie more. While undoubtedly charming and uplifting, it’s basically a US remake of Once, with an almost identical blueprint: a down-on-his-luck musician  restores his will to live by recording an album with a younger, talented female emigre – and their connection remains platonic despite the profound influence they have on each other’s lives. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are engaging enough, but they are ill-served by a predictable script that repeatedly substitutes musical montages for character development – which would not be so problematic if the songs themselves were anything as raw and authentic as the film portrays them to be. Whereas the songs in Once were genuinely beautiful, this time around they’re slick, borderline-cheesy top 40-ready hits that immediately evaporate from memory, and seem strangely misjudged within the indie-spirit vs. corporate music business theme of the movie’s storyline. It all goes down easily enough, and many will no doubt adore it, but for my taste, it’s a distant, vanilla cry from the gem I hoped it would be. (Acquired by The Weinstein Company, for 2014 release.)  


The Selfish Giant 

Clio Barnard’s fiction follow-up to her fascinating documentary The Arbor, is a stunningly crafted realist fable that manages to re-configure Oscar Wilde’s classic children’s fairy tale into a deeply moving story of two teenage boys trying to make money from scrap metal hunting in the bleak landscape of Northern England. Reminiscent of both Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which similarly found poetry in miserable, working class English settings, the film adopts a deceptively meandering, episodic pace as the boys’ friendship is tested by a harsh adult world—exemplified by the Selfish Giant of the title:  the tough, exploitative boss of a large scrap metal yard, who becomes a cruel father-figure for both of them, in very different ways. The two boys, both played by non-actors, are mesmerizing, and together paint one of the most believable screen friendships I’ve ever witnessed. The thick Midlands accents are hard to understand, but it doesn’t matter, as the film tells its story in startling, strangely wondrous images, weaving a slow spell that builds to a devastating conclusion, full of surprising, hard-earned grace. With The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard joins the small but ever-growing ranks of incredibly talented female directors with a highly distinctive artistic voice, and I seriously can’t wait to see what she does next. (Acquired at Cannes by Sundance Selects for VOD and cinema release in 2014.)


Bad Words 

Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is an often very funny black comedy about a foul-mouthed 40-year-old man who finds a loophole that allows him to compete with school kids in a national spelling bee contest. And yet, despite venturing into potentially dark territory, the film’s soft heart is never in doubt, and an irritatingly on-the-nose, punch-pulling voice-over prevents it from being more than an effective R-rated laugher, a far sight better than its studio cousins, but lacking the subtext or soul needed to even enter the same league as a Rushmore or Big Lebowski. Perhaps the comparison is unfair (we’re talking major classics after all), but with a few tweaks and some heavier testicles, this could have been something really special, instead of an entertaining but ultimately disposable few hours. It’s a good one to discover on cable, on a plane, or as a weed-assisted rental, where low expectations can turn it into a pleasant surprise rather than anything of lasting value. And having said all that, it’s a worthwhile debut for Bateman, and a vast improvement over his likeable turns in mostly terrible studio fare. (Acquired by Focus Features for a 2014 release.)  


The Past 

Asgar Farhadi’s follow-up to the incredible, award-winning A Separation is not quite the masterpiece that film was, but a very, very good film nevertheless, cementing his reputation as one of the most skilled, compassionate storytellers on the foreign film circuit. Set in the suburbs of Paris, what begins as the story of an Iranian man come to sign his French wife’s divorce papers gradually splinters into an examination of secrets and consequence as the truth of a past, hidden event reveals itself piece by piece, touching the lives of everyone that comes into its orbit. The cast is uniformly strong, most notably Berenice Bejo who follows her silent-turn in The Artist with a layered, subtle performance that shows she’s the real deal, and the next great French actress poised for international acclaim. As with his other films, Farhadi is most interested in the complex, multi-faceted nature of truth, and how every participant has their own reasons for doing what they do. He never picks a side, and manages to widen the audience’s sympathies so expertly that it becomes impossible to predict which way the film go, or with whom. Part family drama, part mystery, The Past attains ethical resonance through undiluted, unsentimental compassion for everyone involved, and an endless fascination with the messy entanglements of our human desire to both connect and be validated. And when the ending comes, it ripples outward with a sad, unexpected beauty from the least expected corner of its world. (Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a limited December 2013 release.)  


Under the Skin

Sexy Beast and Birth (savaged on first release but critically re-appraised since) —my expectations for Under the Skin were arguably too high, as I was expecting nothing short of a masterpiece. Way off the deep end of art house cinema, this is not a movie for anyone seeking traditional narrative rules of engagement, as it bravely, obtusely leaps and stumbles to create a new cinematic language in tune with its themes of literal and metaphorical alienation. What story there is centers on Scarlett Johansson’s alien predator as she cruises the streets of Glasgow to pick up horny Scotsmen, who she then takes to a between-the-worlds lair where they sink into an ink-like ocean for some unexplained, presumably alien-benefitting purpose. Withholding any exposition, and defiantly resistant to creating any momentum or pace, Glazer’s thoroughly bizarre and undoubtedly unique film is by turns excruciating and stunning, with endless, poorly filmed sequences through Scottish streets interspersed with mind-blowing scenes that could belong in one of Stanley Kubrick’s dreams. There are a handful of images here that are still burned into my mind, and at the risk of being too literal, it really does get under your skin, but I find myself wishing I could edit my own 40-minute version and cut out the parts that I found myself struggling to stay awake for. Admittedly, it’s a film that suffers at the tail-end of a festival-movie-marathon, and I will certainly revisit it in the future, but I find myself unable to recommend it to all but the most die-hard fans of cult art house cinema, even as I continue to wrestle with my own conflicted feelings toward it. (Acquired by A24 Films for 2014 release.)  


  So that’s that for this year’s Toronto reviews. As most who were there will attest to, it was an especially strong year, which  bodes well for the upcoming fall season. And while it’s always impossible to see every great film at TIFF, especially as most are crammed into its first weekend, I’m sorry to have missed Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway— each of which I’ve heard great things about. More than anything though, I strongly recommend the Toronto Film Festival for anyone who needs their faith in movies restored, as there’s no medicine for the Multiplex Blues quite like seeing a ton of great, diverse movies with a whole town filled with people who love them. I know It’s enough to fill my geek-tank until spring, at the very least.

The Ten Most Anticipated Films of the Cannes Film Festival

With the Cannes Film Festival but days away, I find myself increasingly more saddened that I am currently not packing my bags for France. But be that as it may, the films showing this year leave much to be excited for in the coming year. From Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up Only God Forgives to Jim Jarmusch’s first feature in four years Only Lovers Left Alive, the films in competition are looking to be some of the most thrilling of 2013. Plus, we’ll finally get a taste of James Franco’s Wiliam Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying alongside Roman Polanski’s re-imaging of Venus in Furs, with many, many more. And although it’s already premiered in the states last week, Baz Luhrmann’s lavish variation on The Great Gatsby will be kicking off the festival on Wednesday night.

So here are our most anticipated films of the festival, which will hopefully make their way into theaters as soon as possible.


Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen

The life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Llewyn Davis is at a crossroads. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles-some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, scaring up what work he can find, Llewyn’s misadventures take him from the basket houses of the Village to an empty Chicago club – on an odyssey to audition for music mogul Bud Grossman-and back again.

Venus in Furs, Roman Polanski

Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for the lead role in his new play, writer-director Thomas complains on the phone about the poor caliber of talent he has seen. No actress has what it takes to play his lead female character-a woman who enters into an agreement with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda bursts in, a whirlwind of erratic-and, it turns out, erotic-energy.
At first she seems to embody everything Thomas has been lamenting. She is pushy, foul-mouthed, desperate and ill-prepared-or so it seems. But when Thomas finally, reluctantly, agrees to let her try out for the part, he is stunned and captivated by her transformation. Not only is Vanda a perfect fit (even sharing the character’s name), but she apparently has researched the role exhaustively-down to buying props, reading source materials and learning every line by heart. The likeness proves to be much more than skin-deep. As the extended "audition" builds momentum, Thomas moves from attraction to obsession…

The Past, Asghar Farhadi

Following a four year separation, Ahmad returns to Paris from Tehran, upon his French wife Marie’s request, in order to finalize their divorce procedure. During his brief stay, Ahmad discovers the conflicting nature of Marie’s relationship with her daughter Lucie. Ahmad’s efforts to improve this relationship soon unveil a secret from their past.

Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn 

Julian, an American fugitive from justice, runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. His mother, the head of a vast criminal organization, arrives from the US to collect the body of her favorite son, Billy. Julian’s brother has just been killed after having savagely murdered a young prostitute. Crazy with rage and thirsty for vengeance she demands the head of the murderers from Julian. But first, Julian must confront Chang, a mysterious retired policeman – and figurehead of a divine justice – who has resolved to scourge the corrupt underworld of brothels and fight clubs.

Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch

Set against the romantic desolation of Detroit and Tangier, an underground musician, deeply depressed by the direction of human activities, reunites with his resilient and enigmatic lover. Their love story has already endured several centuries at least, but their debauched idyll is soon disrupted by her wild and uncontrollable younger sister. Can these wise but fragile outsiders continue to survive as the modern world collapses around them?

The Immigrant, James Gray

1921. In search of a new start and the American dream, Ewa Cybulski and her sister Magda sail to New York from their native Poland. When they reach Ellis Island, doctors discover that Magda is ill, and the two women are separated. Ewa is released onto the mean streets of Manhattan while her sister is quarantined. Alone, with nowhere to turn and desperate to reunite with Magda, Ewa quickly falls prey to Bruno, a charming but wicked man who takes her in and forces her into prostitution. And then one day, she encounters Bruno’s cousin, the debonair magician Orlando. He sweeps Ewa off her feet and quickly becomes her only chance to escape the nightmare in which she finds herself.

As I Lay Dying, James Franco

Based on the acclaimed novel by William Faulkner, AS I LAY DYING follows a family through their turmoil-filled journey to bring their mother to her gravesite.

Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler

This is the true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008 and feels something in the air. Not sure what it is, he takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions: being a better son to his mother, whose birthday falls on New Year’s Eve, being a better partner to his girlfriend, who he hasn’t been completely honest with as of late, and being a better father to T, their beautiful 4 year old daughter. He starts out well, but as the day goes on, he realizes that change is not going to come easy. He crosses paths with friends, family, and strangers, each exchange showing us that there is much more to Oscar than meets the eye. But it would be his final encounter of the day, with police officers at the Fruitvale BART station that would shake the Bay Area to its very core, and cause the entire nation to be witnesses to the story of Oscar Grant.

The Bastards, Claire Denis

Captain on a container-ship, Marco Silvestri is called urgently back to Paris. His sister, Sandra, is desperate… her husband has committed suicide, the family business has gone under, her daughter has gone adrift. Sandra accuses the powerful businessman, Edouard Laporte responsible. Marco moves into the building where Laporte’s mistress lives with his son. What Marco hadn’t foreseen are Sandra’s shameful, secret manœuvres… and his love for Raphaëlle which could ruin everything.

Nebraska, Alexander Payne

A poor old man living in Montana escapes repeatedly from his house to go to Nebraska to collect a sweepstakes prize he thinks he has won. Frustrated by his increasing dementia, his family debates putting him into a nursing home — until one of his two sons finally offers to take his father by car, even as he realizes the futility. En route the father is injured, and the two must rest a few days in the small decaying Nebraska town where the father was born and where, closely observed by the son, he re-encounters his past. (Don’t worry — it’s a comedy.) Shot in black and white across four American states, the film blends professional actors with non-actors and aspires to mirror the mood and rhythms of its exotic locations.